Health care reform: There are two sides, no solid answer

POULSBO — By the time the air-conditioning kicked on, 80 minutes into U.S. Rep. Jay Inslee's health care town hall meeting Saturday, the crowd of 1,000 had already begun dispersing in a steady trickle.

"I don't think he's listening," Poulsbo resident Kathy Nordlie said of the Bainbridge Island Democrat as she left the North Kitsap High School gym early.

On the other side of the debate, Alice Ostdler, Bainbridge Island, also took an early exit. She was pleased by the crowd's mostly cordial behavior.

"Frankly, I was impressed people were fairly respectful."

Both said they hadn't changed their minds about anything.

Inslee started the meeting by asking the audience to shake hands with their neighbor, like in church.

"I want everyone to remember how friendly we were at the beginning," Inslee said.

Despite a summer recess of publicized protests at district meetings, Inslee's Kitsap town hall assembly avoided making national headlines.

Inslee told the audience he heard their concerns. He would think about issues of privacy, choice and financial responsibility when considering the proposals under review in Congress.

But the meeting also showed many of Inslee's Kitsap constituents have made up their minds about how deeply the federal government ought to be involved in the health care of its citizens. Inslee received a hearty welcome and a majority of the "ayes" from the audience in this Democratic-leaning district. But the "nays" weren't a wilting minority.

To partly pay for health care overhaul — one estimate puts the figure at $1 trillion over 10 years — Inslee noted a proposal to raise taxes on those with high incomes. A spontaneous round of clapping and booing ensued.

John Pitts of Silverdale came to show his support for his congressman and health care reform.

"Boo when the idiots clap and clap when the idiots boo," he said.

Pitts received a pulmonary fibrosis diagnosis four years ago and uses an oxygen cylinder to help him breathe. As a retired federal employee, he likes his health care. It's his kids, and their kids, that he worries about.

Unless something is done, "I don't think they'll have the same options as me," he said.

Ellen Salsbury of Poulsbo is a caregiver, a member of the Service Employees International Union, and a Libertarian. She started reading one of the measures under consideration, 1,000 pages, and made it to page 400.

"I got sick and had to stop," she said. Part of her opposition stems from a proposal requiring Americans to buy insurance. "It was telling me my entire life... would be controlled by this bill."

Salsbury said reform should come by the government allowing insurance companies to compete for consumers across state lines. Congress should also enact "tort reform," increasing restrictions on medical malpractice lawsuits to dampen costs, she said.

"I'm responsible for myself and my family," she said.

Tom Dean of Silverdale, a supporter of reform and the "public option," planned to attend the town hall meeting but injured his ankle.

He sees it as a moral issue, ensuring coverage for all. But he has a pragmatic reason as well, he said, as the bills of the uninsured are paid by those with insurance. About 46 million Americans, or about 15 percent of the country, were uninsured in 2007, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

"They do get health care, they go to the emergency room," Dean said.

Inslee said he supported legislation that included a "public option," or a government-run health insurance company to compete with private insurers, but noted an absence of a government plan was not a "deal-breaker."

"It depends on what else is in the bill," Inslee said Saturday.

Tim and Sheryl Hare of Poulsbo didn't attend the meeting, but they have followed the issue and agree that the current system needs to be fixed. However, they oppose the idea of government extending free health care to all.

"The reality is nothing is really for free," said Tim Hare, a Navy retiree, describing himself as a social liberal and fiscal conservative.

The couple has trouble with government health care. About four years ago, when their autistic son turned 10, the insurance program refused to pay for classes, they said. They appealed, and were turned down again.

"It's going to be worse than it is now," Sheryl Hare said.

Manuela Holdn of Bainbridge Island didn't attend the meeting, she's a German citizen who's lived in the United States for five years. Germany has universal health care. She said both systems have drawbacks.

"Here you are treated as a customer, a little bit better," Holdn said, but he system in her home country provides security.

"If you lose your job you are still insured, not like here."

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